For all its proclamations about parity, MLS playoffs haven't been rife with diversity come showdown time.
But the times they are a'changin', albeit by the volatile manner of upsets and surprises. The final four of MLS playoffs in 2008 will consist of: a conference champion and Supporters' Shield winner (well, of course), a runner-up (good), a third-place team (well, OK), and a fifth-place finisher (what? sacrilege!).
For a moment, though, consider the ends, not the means. Change is good, especially for a league that began with a boom and nearly fizzled out altogether, and since contracting down to 10 teams in 2002 has steadily climbed to respectability through a rather dreary reliance on predictability.
Spread over 30 games, parity evens out the funny bounces, bizarre refereeing decisions, and wild fluctuations in form that cost-constrained MLS teams must endure. But over two games, all bets are off.
Of the 12 MLS Cups played since the league kicked in 1996, two-thirds of the titles have been won by two teams: D.C. United and MLS Original San Jose/Houston have each won four. When you add the pair won by Los Angeles (2002, 2005) and singletons captured by Kansas City (2000) and Chicago (1998), well, is that spreading the wealth as our President-elect has decreed?
Adding runner-ups Colorado (1997) and New England (four times) rounds out the list of finalists to a half-dozen and hardly broadens the spectrum. Of the two dozen possible slots in the 12 championship games, those six teams have accounted for every one of them.
This season, the percentages are slanted heavily the other way. On raw numbers, there's a 75 percent chance that the 2008 MLS Cup champion will win its first title, since Columbus, New York and playoff debutant Real Salt Lake have reached the penultimate hurdle.
I hate to dump on a courageous, admirable bunch like the Revs, but it's somebody else's turn. D.C. United may well be the MLS flagship franchise and I hope it gets a chance to prove it next year with a reasonable break, whoops, wrong word, regarding injuries. The Galaxy and Rapids didn't deserve to reach the playoffs and somehow did just that, a remarkable accomplishment in MLS.
Chicago might well celebrate a second title a decade after its amazing triumph as a first-year expansion team, yet by simply knocking off the Fire, Columbus can guarantee that a brand new name will be festooned to the brand-new Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
The conference semifinals will lack defending champ Houston, which had it survived a two-game series with New York would have kept alive a dream of winning an unprecedented three straight titles. The Dynamo showed the wear and tear of its heavy slate of domestic and international games this season, but after rallying from deficits in the 2006 and 2007 conference semifinals, and scoring late to earn a 1-1 tie in the Meadowlands, couldn't turn the trick again at home after falling behind 1-0 and then 2-0.
So the league's biggest big-market flop gets a real shot at finally playing for the big prize. As the fifth-place Eastern Conference team that knocked off the Western Conference champion, New York heads out west again to face third-place Real Salt Lake, which edged into the playoffs on a last-minute goal by Yura Movsisyan, took a 1-0 first-leg lead when the same player scored at approximately the same moment in the match, and resolutely garnered the tie it needed to win the series on aggregate. You can't make this stuff up, I'm telling you.
As the "higher" seed, RSL gets the game in its place, Rio Tinto Stadium, which it opened just a month ago against these same Red Bulls. Diversity and destiny have come together. And it did finish just ahead of New York on overall points, so there. Speaking of points, the Red Bulls finished ninth overall, the same slot occupied by Los Angeles in 2005 prior to its improbable, and widely decried, postseason run.
Columbus just might throw the whole wild and crazy theme out of whack by prevailing in the playoffs, as would befit the league's "best" team. Few could begrudge the title going to either Crew mentor Sigi Schmid, who has the 2002 title to his credit as Galaxy coach, or Fire head man Denis Hamlett, who served as an assistant coach for a decade before finally getting the top job.
If Chicago does get past the Crew, Hamlett might face the man he worked alongside last season, Juan Carlos Osorio, who bolted for New York last December. Yet the Red Bulls must conjure up some road magic to subdue Real Salt Lake, transformed from doormat to contender by coach Jason Kreis, whose team out-maneuvered that of another all-time MLS great, Preki, to get this far.
The playoff system is deeply flawed, and in postseasons like this, brutally unfair. But it has blasted MLS out of its staid MLS Cup malaise, and that works for me.